Health virus NATO defence 1 April 2020 - 14:51

Virus must not also spark security crisis, NATO warns Brussels, April 1, 2020 (AFP) - NATO must stop the coronavirus pandemic turning into a security threat, the alliance's chief said Wednesday, warning that Russia or terror groups could seek to take advantage of the crisis. Foreign ministers from the 30-strong North Atlantic Alliance will hold video talks on Thursday to discuss their response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed 30,000 people in Europe alone. They are expected to issue a joint statement as a show of unity and to send a signal to potential adversaries such as Russia that NATO is still capable and willing to respond to threats. "Our primary objective is to ensure that this health crisis does not become a security crisis," NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said at a news conference. Measures to try to slow the spread of the highly contagious virus have forced NATO allies to trim military exercises, including the huge US-led "Defender 2020". But Stoltenberg insisted this did not mean NATO's ability to defend itself was weakened. "Our operational readiness is maintained, it is not undermined," he said. "We continue to patrol the skies and to defend our borders and we continue our missions and operations not least in the fight against terrorism, because these threats continue to exist." Stoltenberg pointed to what he warned was increased Russian military activity as proof that NATO needs to be on its guard more than ever during the coronavirus crisis. "We see significant military activities close to NATO borders with a new exercise in the western military districts of Russia... and we have seen significant Russian presence in the North Sea," he said. "Therefore NATO has to continue to patrol our skies with air policing, we need to be present on land, but also in the air and at sea." Jets from NATO air forces have intercepted Russian warplanes several times in recent weeks and alliance naval vessels shadowed seven Russian warships loitering unusually in the North Sea for several days. Because of coronavirus restrictions on travel and gatherings, Thursday's ministerial meeting will take place by video link -- a first in NATO's 70-year history. Diplomats say it was vital the meeting went ahead to show that NATO is still working and to send a message to potential hostile actors that they would not be allowed to exploit the coronavirus crisis. Stoltenberg also highlighted NATO efforts to help with the virus response. While the alliance does not have medical equipment of its own to deploy, it is acting as a forum for allies to exchange requests for help, as well as aiding in the transport of supplies. On Wednesday, a military cargo plane took off from Turkey with masks, protective equipment and other medical materials for Italy and Spain, Europe's two worst-affected countries. pdw/dc/dl

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